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Who was the first man to decry man's habit of eating salt? We cannot answer this question definitely. Sylvester Graham is the earliest writer we have found who condemned the taking of sodium chloride or common table salt. Graham pointed out that salt is not metabolized, that it is an irritant and a useless substance. The word metabolism had not been coined at the time Graham wrote and physiologists did not know very much about metabolism at that time. But some knowledge of the subject did exist. Following Graham, Hygienists in general condemned the eating of salt, which is an innutritious substance, hence a poison. It occasions irritation throughout the human system, resulting in vital resistance (called stimulation ) and consequent debility.
It was objected that salt is necessary to life and health. How easy it is to find an excuse for our bad habits! Salt is necessary; salt improves the flavor of food; salt adds to the joys of eating; salt promotes digestion; salt is an essential ingredient of the living organism. Such were the assertions made in defense of a practice that was far from universal among mankind and practiced by no animals in a state of nature.
To say that because salt is found in the blood, we must eat it, is like saying that we must eat iron (perhaps saw filings) because iron is found in the blood. It is like demanding that we eat phosphorus because phosphorus is founc in the nerves, that we drink iodine because iodine is used in the thyroid gland. We have to draw our mineral nutrients exclusively from the plant kingdom and not from the soil.
How can salt be a food when it passes through the body unchanged, being ejected from all of the ejector organs in the same state in which it is taken into the stomach? If it is taken into the stomach as salt, hurried through the system as salt and cast out as salt, how in the name of bread-and-butter can it nourish the tissues? We have long known that food--all food--is changed, transformed into the very elements of blood, muscle, bone, brain, nerve, sinew, etc. Substances not so transformed, with the sole exception of water, are not foods but poisons. It was then, as now, commonly asserted that all animals are fond of salt and that some tribes of the human family prize it above gold or any other mineral and will even exchange their children for salt. "Salt is very important as an article of food."
Such reasonings, or rather such assertions, are very common with medical men and writers on diet. They repeat, reiterate, echo and re-echo as a well-trained, yet most unthinking and unphilosophical parrot utters "Polly wants a cracker" on every occasion, what they have heard others say or what they have read in some medical book. But, like the jibbering bird, they never think it necessary to assign any reason for their speech. Many animals that are not normally carnivorous have been trained to become fond of beef steak and coffee. Many tribes of the human family prize liquor and tobacco above gold, health and character, and will destroy their wives and sacrifice their children and even exchange their lives for these poisons. Should we, therefore, reason that beef and coffee are very necessary for animals and that drink and tobacco are very important articles of diet for human beings?
Although Hygienists abstained from salt and did not suffer in health as a consequence, those who defended salt eating continued to insist that salt eating is absolutely necessary to human life. Replying to an assertion made by a contemporary editor--that no person can live without salt, meaning common table salt--Trall said that the statement is untrue and added: "We know hundreds who do live, and all the better, without it." Then as now, the opposition to salt eating had to contend with those who close their eyes and refuse to consider the great numbers of people who do not eat salt.
We know that the North American Indians did not employ salt until taught to do so by the White man. Over two vast continents and for long periods of time the people whom we call Indians lived in health and vigor without eating salt. Writing in the Journal, June 1862, D. H. Maxson, M.D., said of salt eating: "In 1809 William Bryant went with a hundred and twenty men, under the United States Government, beyond the Rocky Mountains, to conduct to their homes the Indian chiefs who were brought to the seat of government by Lewis and Clark. They remained with the Indians two years, subsisting entirely, as the Indians did, upon esculent fruits and roots, such as the forest afforded, and the flesh of wild animals, with water, without salt or the admixture of any foreign substances. They soon learned to relish their food without it. Most of the men belonging to the company were, when they left the United States, more or less disordered in their health and afflicted with chronic ailments. They were all restored to health, and became, like the Indians among whom they dwelt, remarkably robust and active. This does not look like dying a miserable death for want of salt!"
Like the soldiers who went under Bryant to the far West, if you will abstain from salt eating for a period long enough for the rejuvenation of the sense of taste and then take salted foods, you will discover that the salt that you once enjoyed has become disagreeable. You will find it difficult to realize that you once enjoyed the salty taste. Instead of salt adding to the joys of eating, it always and inevitably diminishes gustatory enjoyment in proportion to the freedom with which it is added to food. It destroys the keen perception of the agreeable qualities of foods and thus diminishes the enjoyment of eating.
Salt does not promote digestion, but actually retards the process. Indeed, it retards all the nutritive functions and is unfavorable to all vital changes. It is also unfavorable to excretion, inhibiting the action of the kidneys.
The early Hygienists held that salt eating interferes with tissue change. Today we do not emphasize this objection to taking salt, but we may be making a mistake in not doing so. True, the body gets the salt out of the circulation as soon and as far as possible and stores it as brine under the skin and in the cavities of the body, to the end that it shall interfere as little as possible with the processes of life; but this is never adequate to prevent it from damaging the tissues and hindering the "metamorphosis of tissues," as our predecessors expressed it.
A long-suffering invalid, upon being informed of the evils of salt eating, once replied: "What folly! Tell me common salt is poison! I have eaten it all my life and am a living proof that it is harmless, if not necessary to the animal economy." She suffered with an "indolent ulcer," had had typhus fever once and erysipelas twice, besides the common ailments of the people about her. She was practically an invalid at the time she declared herself to be "a living proof that it is harmless." How easy it is to close our eyes and blame our suffering on the "will of God" or upon the invasion of the body by microbes! She thought that because she was dragging out a miserable existence, because she had not ceased to breathe, she was living.
There have not been lacking those who advocated the employment of common table salt as a medicine. It has been used as an emetic. A spoonful of salt in hot water is enough to cause vomiting in a child at once. It was also found to be useful in inducing a bowel movement in constipation and there have been those who advocated its daily employment for this purpose. But, is it not logical to think that, if the body expels a substance by vomiting or by bowel action, this is because it is not wanted? Why the violent action of vomiting if the salt is a beneficial substance? It seems, also, that a substance that is so violently rejected is not good for food.
The Life Natural (India) for November 1963 quotes an item from The Indian Express, November 8, 1963, telling of a man who lost his life by drinking salt in water. The man bet that he could drink "ten tolas (approximately 100 grams) of salt in water. He drank the salt water and developed a severe diarrhea and became unconscious. He was treated medically, but died, either from salt-poisoning or from drug-poisoning or from both combined. It will be shocking to my readers to learn that this quarter of a pound of salt was taken to win five pounds of dates.
Friends of salt-eating will, of course, say that he took an "overdose." The fact is that he could have taken much less salt and not died, but this would not constitute proof that a smaller quantity of salt is beneficial. Poisons are such qualitatively and not merely quantitatively. A smaller dose of salt will occasion diarrhea, but it may not be sufficient to result in unconsciousness and death. Salt is an antibiotic and has no place in the human body.